Lesson Plans and Other Problematic Tools of Teaching

Once, back in the early days of teacher blogging, I was part of a cadre of ‘recognized’ educators (I know—the term makes me cringe, too), who were pumping out blogs for a national magazine making the transition to an online format. We were posting every two days, because our editor was a little manic about fresh content as key to increased traffic.

What this meant was that I was writing feverishly, coordinating topics with my fellow teacher-writers so that we didn’t all write about the same thing. There was little responding to current policy issues or op-eds popping up on critical national questions. Instead, there was a whole lot of generic, one-in-the-can education writing.

What I remember was that after a year, the editor evaluated our personal relevance via tracking the most-read blog topics. The number one draw? A blog about faculty meetings. Seriously.

Evidently, teachers wanted to read about their ordinary, daily practice. The ultimate tinkering around the edges, pedestrian things that get griped about in the faculty lounge.  This hasn’t changed—my FB and Twitter feeds have been overrun last week by a piece on a recent Hechinger Report entitled ‘Does Lunch Have to Be 45 Minutes?’

This preference for the prosaic bubbles up in mid-summer when the school supplies displays appear (and scary teacher dreams return). Teaching is one of those professions where satisfaction and mastery of the work depends heavily on accruing and curating a wide array of craft knowledge. Good teachers really do have strong opinions on staff meetings and optimum lunch breaks. They matter.

In my building, having your lunch time attached to your planning period–some 90 continuous discretionary minutes–was highly coveted, something given to 20-year veterans who sucked up to the scheduling secretary. The other desirable spot was first hour, when everyone else was teaching and the copy machine was finally available.  These things may sound inconsequential, but they’re not.

One of these evergreen subjects is lessons plans.  Should they be required and collected? Should they be standardized? Should they include goals/objectives/relevant standards? Are they even a real part of what teachers do—or just blah-blah to satisfy someone in the office? What is the real purpose of lesson plans—another mandated task that checks up on lazy teachers? Preparation for an emergency sub? An organizing tool for better teaching?

Offhand, I’d say the answer to all but one of those questions (the last one) should be—or could be–‘NO.’ Here’s a recent piece (again, very popular and widely shared in the teacher circles in which I travel) which makes a lukewarm but (IMHO) flawed case for abolishing required lesson plans, going as far as suggesting that lesson plans are a deterrent for those who might wish to be teachers during a nationwide teacher shortage.

During my 31-year career in the classroom, I often worked with colleagues who resisted the contractual requirement that they turn in weekly lesson plans. As veteran teachers, they felt that detailed planning on paper was mindless hoop jumping. According to them, good teachers could step into a class, all their knowledge and skills percolating, and proceed to do the right things, without having to rely on notes. Good teaching as natural artistry.

The thing is—this never worked for me. Any time I ever went into school without a clear plan for what I was going to do every hour of the day, Things Went Wrong, and I left school with a headache. This was especially true when I was a younger teacher, and my aforementioned craft knowledge was skimpy. For the 31 years I was in the classroom, I sat down every Sunday night, usually with a glass of wine, and wrote lesson plans. Because on the Sundays that I didn’t, I paid for it on Monday. I never outgrew the need for an organizing tool.

Of course, by Wednesday, the plans were defunct, off-track, amended and adjusted—but they still served a purpose. Turning them in to the principal was pointless, although I always complied, and I am profoundly grateful that I never had to follow a lesson plan template or pacing guide, list state standards, or give my plans to a sub who would have been mystified about what to do.

My plans were my own, generally written on a yellow legal pad with thought bubbles, bulleted learning goals, don’t-forget reminders, essential questions and useful extensions, what you need when your amazing 48-minute lesson is—surprise! —over and done in 32 minutes. Extensions are strategies (sometimes, something as simple as a juicy question) that reinforce the core idea or skill. After you’ve taught for years, you’ll have a mental bag full of extensions. Writing them down just reminds you to use them.

Here’s the reason I think lesson plans aren’t non-essential make-work: It took me a good 20 years to understand the parameters of high-quality lesson design. I wrote crappy plans, just to get them done and have a list of things to do, for a long time.

Eventually, I understood the structure of a good lesson—knowing your students and what they need before you plan, setting goals for learning, choosing appealing materials, paying attention to kids’ responses, and reflecting on how effective each lesson was, what students actually learned. After that, I found the lesson planning process indispensable.

I found I’d been planning a lot of disconnected but cool musical activities. My students were always busy—engaged—but I was missing richer and more coherent learning. Because I hadn’t thought deeply about it and put it in my plans.  The best piece I’ve ever read about this phenomenon is here: The Grecian Urn Lesson.

There are undoubtedly veteran teachers who have it all in their heads, but any teacher who resists planning in favor of winging it might take a reflective look at what, precisely, kids are taking away from their classroom. (Photo by CaptPiper)Photo by CaptPiper BY-NC 2.0


  1. I struggled with lesson planning and most of the time my lesson plan was a few notes and the agenda I posted. I found posting standards and daily goals useless but it was a requirement where I worked. Fortunately, administrators are fairly clueless and I could get away with posting one standard and one goal for a month. I did experiment with more complete “what I do” and “what the students do” lesson plans with timing sequence. I found them valuable from time to time but not worthy a daily effort. I did this about once a month. They made me think more deeply about student learning and engagement.

    It is too bad teaching and public school are under such relentless attack. It would be so much better if teachers could concentrate on improving instead of trying to save their public school from “reformers.” The privatization movement has considerable harm to the continuous improvement model.



    1. Thanks for a good comment, Tom. There’s been an interesting comment string on Twitter as well, mostly centered on how much of lesson planning is hoop-jumping compliance, and how much is real work invested in being a more responsive teacher.

      My (smallish) district EA never got into a control war with administration about what plans had to look like. We had to turn ‘plans’ (undefined) in every week on Monday morning, plus an emergency plan for a day when real plans couldn’t be phoned in or sent to school in advance. I once filled in for a 6th grade teacher during my conference period, and her plan for that hour (science) was one word: ‘Rockets.’ Not particularly helpful, but I was experienced enough to punt.

      I agree that it would be better if teachers could actually focus on self-guided improvement. Which is why I think rejecting lesson plans outright may make for a catchy headline, but isn’t particularly helpful.



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